Star Athletica: An Unsatisfying End

If you were hoping that following the Supreme Court’s decision in Star Athletica you might learn whether common stripes, chevrons, color blocks and zig zags are sufficiently original to be copyrightable—a question expressly reserved by the Supreme Court and the Sixth Circuit– you will be disappointed. On August 10, 2017, the district court permitted Varsity Brands to voluntarily dismiss its copyright infringement action against Star Athletica with prejudice, over the objection of Star Athletica, which wished to pursue its counter-claims seeking to invalidate the Varsity Brands copyrights.

You might well ask, as we did, why after seven years of largely successful litigation, Varsity Brands would be permitted to walk away. Or you might ask, as we also did, why Star Athletica would object to having the suit end with no apparent injunctive or other relief awarded against it. Both are fair questions and the answer to each is unusual: The insurance company that was defending Star Athletica reached a settlement agreement with Varsity Brands, without the participation or approval of Star Athletica. The terms of the settlement are confidential. The only clue is the court’s reservation to Varsity Brands of the right to return to court if it does not receive the payment from the insurer required by the settlement. As far as Varsity Brands is concerned, not only does it get money, but it also avoids the potential for invalidation of its copyrights, having made its point that the two dimensional designs reflected in its uniforms are separable from their utilitarian features and theoretically capable of copyright protection. It now has a stronger threat to hurl at potential competitors.

But what of Star Athletica and its interest in settling its rights to compete with Varsity Brands in the cheerleading uniform market? In the view of the court, Star Athletica receives what is in effect immunity from future claims of copyright infringement related to the copyrights and uniforms at issue in the action. And also in the court’s view, Star Athletica’s counter-claims to invalidate the copyrights were only defenses to the copyright infringement claims and not independent bases for legal action once the threat of copyright liability was removed. And that is the rub: Varsity Brands has many other copyright registrations for which similar challenges to their validity might (or might not) have merit. Because the court did not provide guidance on that fundamental point, competing uniform makers remain exposed to similar infringement claims.

One can’t help feeling that the broader fashion public had an interest in the resolution of the question of whether stripes and chevrons are original when applied to garments. But it is an axiom of federal court litigation that the courts do not decide hypothetical cases or controversies for the edification of the public.

For now, if you are interested in whether stripes can be protected in fashion, you will have to focus on trademarks and not copyrights. There is always Gucci’s suit against Forever 21 for knocking off what it claims is its stripes trademark. And then, too, there is Adidas’ pending suit against Skechers for knocking off its three stripe trademark. The district court in Oregon just decided that Adidas’ trademark infringement suit can proceed.

Credit:  Helene M. Freeman


A Big Cheer for Cheerleader Uniforms


The Supreme Court decision in Star Athletica L. L. C. v. Varsity Brands, Inc., No. 15-866 was announced today and the fashion industry can breathe a huge sigh of relief. In fact, the industry, especially accessory businesses, would be justified in popping open the Champagne. Not only did the Court uphold the Sixth Circuit’s judgment that the designs of the cheerleading uniforms were separable, it greatly simplified and expanded the two- and three-dimensional features of useful articles that can qualify for copyright protection.

The opinion holds that the design of a useful article is eligible for copyright protection if the feature can be perceived as a copyrightable two or three-dimensional pictorial, graphic or sculptural design separate from the useful article, on its own or in some other tangible medium, if it can be “imagined” separately from the useful article. Physical separability is not required. The analysis of separability under the statute is a purely conceptual undertaking. Conceptual separability does not require that the remaining part of the useful article, apart from the two and three dimensional design, be either fully functional or even equally useful. The focus of the separability analysis under the copyright statute is on the extracted two- and three-dimensional design and, according to the Court, one need not “imagine a fully functioning useful article without the artistic features.” Nor does it matter, the Court holds, that the artistic feature plays a role in the function of the useful article.

All of the other glosses on conceptual separability that the various appeals courts had previously articulated are swept away. It does not matter that the artistic feature of the design would be marketable separately, so long as it can be imagined as existing. It doesn’t matter that it was conceived originally for the useful purpose to which it was put.

Left for another day is whether the specific designs at issue are copyrightable. That will be the task of the trial court on remand. However, Justice Ginsberg notes in a footnote that the requisite creativity for copyright is extremely low.

Credit: Helene M. Freeman

Here’s a previous post that may be of interest…


NYC Fashion Week and the Created Today, Copied Tomorrow Syndrome

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Pose! Click! Flash! Those are just a few of the sights and sounds of Fashion Week, an exciting time here in New York City. I had the privilege of attending one of the week’s first events–PH5’s Presentation at Bortolami Gallery in Chelsea.

I was awed by the entire experience–stark white walls adorned with giant white balloons set against a row of willowy models in unique and colorful knits and clear plastic above-the-knee boots. As the models stood in mannequin-like pose on small white pedestals, cameras went off at lightning speed and reporters surrounded designer Mijia Zhang and owner Wei Lin. Others, many of them dressed to perfection, crowded into the gallery to see the looks–and look over each other. The energy was high and fast.

After some gawking and conversation over maple water, the onlookers drifted out and the room cleared just as quickly as it had filled up. It was then that I was struck how much the show reminded me of Christmas morning when the kids tear through numerous well-wrapped gifts in literally minutes. After all of the time-consuming preparations in browsing, choosing and wrapping gifts and placing them under the trimmed tree, the excitement is over in a matter of minutes. The same is true of a fashion show.

I thought of all of the hard work Wei, Mijia and their team put into making the excitement of the show. From choosing a brand, to designing the clothes, selecting eye-catching fabrics, obtaining quality manufacturers and selecting the “right” models, space and décor, the coordination is overwhelming.

As a lawyer, my mind, of course, then jumped to the “dark side.” The months of planning to over-in-minutes analogy made me think of how quickly PH5’s designs could be ripped off. We do not have copyright protection for clothing designs in the United States so copying is not only inevitable but also permitted. I have heard many a designer tell me about the frustration they experience when all of the time, effort and money they expend to create a line of clothes can be out the door in minutes when photos of fresh clothing are sent overseas and copied instantly. A few years ago, bills were introduced in Congress to give limited protection to clothing designs but they never made it anywhere. As a result, the copying continues, at least in the U.S., at the same frantic pace as Fashion Week. Some countries like France guard their famous designers by protecting clothing designs.

Some designers with novel fabrics may be luckier than others. For example, PH5 has what the Daily Beast calls “technically sophisticated knits” which can be protected by copyright. Original fabric designs are protected by copyright in the U.S., which does help alleviate the created today, knocked off tomorrow syndrome. Whether a design qualifies for protection is a question to raise with counsel—well enough before the fashion show starts—in order to help gain a measure of legal (and therefore business) advantage over makers of knock-offs.

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Credit: Monica P. McCabe


Copyright Registration, Redux

Textile Pattern Quilting Machine

Registering copyrightable designs as “unpublished” collections can be an efficient and cost effective way to register multiple two dimensional print patterns in a single registration. But to derive the benefits of registration, you need to be able to identify the designs included. Standard Fabrics International, Inc. (“Standard Fabrics”) learned that lesson the hard way, when it sued Louise Paris, Ltd. and its retail customer for copyright infringement of one of the fabric designs it claimed was part of its “Spring Summer, Collection 1”.

To succeed in a suit for copyright infringement, you must prove that the design in issue was registered with the Copyright Office. To register, you must submit a copy of the design with an application for registration.

Standard Fabrics’ registration identified its work only as “Spring Summer, Collection 1”.  Nothing in the title referred specifically to the particular design number that was the subject of the suit. Therefore, Standard Fabrics was required to prove that the design was actually included in the collection registered. Because Standard Fabrics could not prove the design infringed was part of the collection registered, it was denied judgment on its infringement claim.

The problem Standard Fabrics faced can be avoided. In an application to register a collection of designs, be sure to set forth the design number for each design covered by the application. Each individual design in the collection can be uploaded separately on the Copyright Office’s electronic website and appropriate records of the upload can be printed and maintained.

The Copyright Office generally maintains deposit copies of unpublished works. It will provide copies of these for use by the lawyers for parties to litigation, but it requires a written application in its proscribed form and time to search for, reproduce and certify its records. The fee charged for this service can be hundreds of dollars, as the Copyright Office will charge for its time as well as imposing copying and certification fees.

But beware, the Copyright Office does not undertake to retain deposit copies of published works. Full term retention must be arranged for a fee.

Credit: Helene M. Freeman

Here’s a previous post that may be of interest…


Copyright Registration Still Matters

Procrastination contestIt is an oft repeated truth that copyright exists automatically from the moment a work is fixed in tangible form and that no formalities are required to preserve the copyright. In the United States, registration with the Copyright Office is only necessary to sue for infringement, but it is not uncommon for owners to defer registration until litigation is contemplated. The recent decision in Solid Oak Sketches v. 2K Games, Inc. is a healthy reminder that the timing of the registration can significantly affect the remedies available to the copyright owner in a suit for infringement and that a delay in registration can be costly.

The remedies for copyright infringement include recovery of actual damages and the profits of the infringer, as well as an injunction of continued infringement in appropriate cases. But the law also permits recovery of “statutory damages”, in lieu of proving actual damages or profits. Attorney’s fees, expert witness fees, deposition costs and similar litigation expenses can be recovered by the prevailing party. Given the potential cost of prosecuting a copyright infringement action and proving damages, the plaintiff’s ability to recover its attorney’s fees and litigation expenses, as well as statutory damages, can be important factors in the calculus of the value of the litigation for both the plaintiff and the defendant.

However, the law permits recovery of attorney’s fees and statutory damages from a defendant only if the copyright was registered with the copyright office before the infringement “commenced”.

The plaintiff in Solid Oak was the copyright owner of the artwork for eight designs, tattooed on five different National Basketball Association (NBA) players. (If you did not realize tattoo art is copyrightable, you didn’t read my colleague, Alan Behr’s, recent post.) The defendants created and sold realistic basketball simulation video games, using animated versions of the NBA players as they appeared in real life, complete with their tattoos. The first video game in the series was introduced in 2013 and new versions appeared in 2014 and 2015. The plaintiff registered its tattoo designs in 2015, after the initial versions of the game appeared, but prior to the release of the 2016 game in the series. Unable to convince the defendant to take a license for the tattoo artwork appearing on the players depicted in the game, Solid Oak brought suit for copyright infringement.

The court held that Solid Oak was not entitled to recover attorney’s fees and statutory damages, even with respect to the 2016 version of the game which was released after registration of the copyright, because the infringement had commenced before the registration of the tattoo art in 2015. According to the court, when the first act of infringement in a series of on-going infringements precedes registration, these special remedies are not available, even if the versions released after registration differed from the prior versions.

In the fashion industry, where knock-offs can appear in the market within months of the introduction of an original design, it can be advisable to register print, lace and jewelry designs as “unpublished works” before they reach the market. The fee for registration is only $35 and it can be done on-line without a large investment of time. The benefits, which also include a presumption that the two or three dimension design is an original, copyrightable work, owned by the registrant, are well worth the money and effort.

Credit: Helene M. Freeman


Seeing With Your Third Eye

Because almost everybody wears glasses of some kind, part of the pathway of the ascent of a designer will quite often include an eyewear line. Personal optics is a field in which design must coexist with the demands of mechanics, durability and, for vision eyewear, medical requirements. With those few exceptions that inevitably come along, if what you find fits, does the job and, just maybe makes you look cool or at least not uncool–you will generally be content.

Of course, there are unique eyewear designs, but intellectual property law is tough on those who claim design rights for functional objects. Patent protection is reserved for the kind of innovation that rises to the level of the better mousetrap–meaning, by metaphor, that the new trap indeed should catch mice in a way not previously practiced or commonly anticipated. For the non-functional design elements of eyewear, protection can sometimes be obtained by design patent, copyright and either a trademark or trade dress. (Trade dress protection on the features of an object of any kind, rather than the packaging it came in, is a challenge for a different discussion.) There are particular requirements for each form of protection, meaning it is possible that one style of eyewear may qualify for one form of protection, for more than one form or for none at all.

By way of some exaggeration for a point, should you wish to protect a new eyewear design, you might have a credible chance of having the law support your claim if it were for sunglasses with not two but three lenses. That is to say, try designing frames on which a third, completely useless lens would be placed smack in the middle, over the bridge, to shade an imaginary third eye. To improve your chances, across the top of the frames place an original, melancholic relief illustrating a tragic moment from Longfellow’s “The Wreck of the Hesperus.” Along each temple add a declaratory statement such as: “Some People Will do Anything for Attention.” I am not going to speculate on your likely sales of that item during the fall-winter season, but some elements may prove to be protectable, as may a combination of elements.

This is not to suggest that you have to go quite that far to obtain rights for eyewear. All exaggeration aside, I have been quite successful doing so over the years for more mundane but far more elegant original variations on eyewear construction and design. And I have been able to defend those elements against infringement. The point is that, for something as common as glasses, whether for reading, vision or protection against the sun, you have to be inventive to come up with something strongly protectable. When you do, you would be well-advised to consult with your attorney about what elements, alone or in combination, can be protected by copyright, design patent, trademark or trade dress. You do not need to add the third lens to make that happen. You simply need to know enough to ask your lawyers whether what you have created is legally protectable, as well as being, of course, something both functional and beautiful.

Credit: Alan Behr


Let Us All Cheer On The Supreme Court Of The United States

Supreme Court Of The United States of America

Every autumn, at my high school in New Orleans, for many, education was made to stand in line behind football. Ordinarily, in the heat and humidity of The Big Easy, any kind of activity beyond that needed to populate bars and strip clubs was considered unnecessary and even dangerous. (The older brother of a good friend died of heat stroke from playing high school football.)

And yet football, that proud exception to the rule, was worshiped every autumn. If the players were the priests of this brawny faith, what did that make the cheerleaders? The nuns? For their habits, the girls wore blue and yellow uniforms that were both comfortable and amenable to much athleticism, the requirements for the job being lots of jumping, pom-pom pushing and the occasional lift and twist into a fully inverted position. The garments were not all that successful in wicking away moisture, and the girls made quite an effort to maintain the required posture of irrepressible enthusiasm—while battling cascading perspiration.

That comes to mind as we consider that the Supreme Court has just agreed to hear an appeal from a copyright case about cheerleader uniforms: Varsity Brands, Inc. et al., v. Star Athletica, LLC. The Supreme Court rarely accepts copyright cases—it will accept one every few years—and barely will the Cheerleaders Uniformdecision have been announced before a cascade of articles by professors, lawyers, law students and the lay press will appear to interpret it and opine on its implications for the freedom of expression and the business of expression.

As the case currently stands, the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, in an appeal from a district court in western Tennessee, has ruled that simple designs on cheerleading uniforms consisting largely of “stripes, chevrons, zigzags, and colorblocks” are protectable by copyright. The court noted the basic rule, which we have discussed on these pages, that, “the Copyright Act protects fabric designs, but not dress designs.” The court went on to say, “Because we believe that the graphic features of Varsity’s cheerleading-uniform designs are more like fabric design than dress design, we hold that they are protectable subject matter under the Copyright Act…as pictorial, graphic, or sculptural works.” Functionality, such as wicking away all that perspiration, proved not to be a consideration for the court.

The court also rejected the argument of the defendant that the designs in question simply represented by the cheerleading uniform should be unprotected. There are just so many ways to make a uniform for an adolescent girl look like she is a cheerleader by the uniform alone—without, that is, making her shake her pompoms until you get the point. Although there may indeed be characteristics common to most cheerleading uniforms, those stripes, chevrons, zigzags and colorblocks, when sewn into a dress, were sufficiently unique as to warrant protection as a copyrightable design.

What the Supreme Court will be reviewing is quite specific: the standard employed by the court in determining how to separate (only conceptually because it cannot be removed physically in these fashion cases), a two-dimensional design from the functional garment on which it is placed in order to examine whether it is protectable by copyright. The lower court previously examined nine such standards (or “tests,” as they are often called) that have been floated or actually used and then went on to adopt one of its own invention, formed around five questions it asked itself.

The adage that the Supreme Court does not accept cases in order to affirm them may possibly apply here, but with its own tenth test now on the books (by the Sixth Circuit’s reckoning), it also seems quite possible that we will either be seeing the embrace of one of the prior nine or will be presented with an eleventh that will potentially replace all its predecessors nationwide.

And that, in short, throws open for speculation whether, in applying the test the Supreme Court will enunciate, the lower courts will still hold that uniform designs such as those at issue in this particular case are subject to copyright protection. Whatever the outcome on that point, the general rule does not appear in any way in danger: at least for the purposes of copyright, in the USA, copying a dress pattern (but not necessarily the pattern of the fabric itself) is largely permissible. The rest, as in so much about both fashion and law, is all about the details.

Credit: Alan Behr

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